How Poems are Made – A Discredited View

GENRE: Poetry
AUTHOR: Alice Walker


This poem is a possible explanation for why people write poems. Walker explains that a poem is a place to express the mixed feelings that are still with us after a love affair ends. Writing a poem can bring us relief because our true feelings are expressed. We should find a good place for our feelings of rejection and not feel ashamed of them. We should not pretend to be happy when we are sad. Poems are a place where we can tell the truth, remember the good as well as bad parts of the relationship, and find some inner peace. ERA Alice Walker is a black American activist. She wrote from the 1960s onwards. This was a time of great change and struggle in America, which had a similar system to Apartheid (the separation of races, and inequality for black people by law). The USA called it Segregation. Walker often wrote about falling in love with people from different communities to her own.


Alice Walker is an American human rights activist, poet and author. Her writing focuses on the struggles of black people, especially women. Her most famous novel, ‘The Colour Purple’, is partly about women finding their voice to express how they truly feel. This is a similar theme to this poem, which is about how writing can help us heal ourselves.


It is a Free verse. There is no set structure or rhyme scheme. There is some internal rhyme. The repetition of ‘how poems are made’ is like a chorus or refrain (repeated lines). The free-verse style and lack of traditional structure or rhyme scheme sounds like informal, spoken English.


Below is a summary of the poem. Fill each of the gaps with a word / a few words:

Alice Walker’s poem describes a way of. [1] …………… when a [2] ……………. relationship has ended. The poem describes some of the difficult [3] ……………. that relationships bring. It describes how the [4] ……………. we are left with builds up and causes us to [5] ……………. to be happy, and to [6] ……………. what we truly feel.The poem suggests that writing a poem helps us to find some [7] ……………. about the [8] …………….

Instruct the learners to compare their answers, to see if they can correct their own mistakes.
2 Discuss the correct answers with the whole class.
1 coping / managing / recovering
2 love / loving / romantic
3 feelings / emotions
4 pain / hurt / rejection
5 pretend
6 hide / cover up
7 peace / closure
8 past / our history


to comprehend (v.): To comprehend something means to understand it. Walker is saying that she finally understands how poems work because she has experienced pain for herself. Now she understands how to write a poem.

discredited (adj.): When we discredit an idea, we reject it or don’t take it seriously. But Walker is being ironic (saying the opposite of what she really feels). She actually does believe that this is how poems are made – by putting all our experiences and feelings into them. So, this is actually not a discredited view. The title seems to say the opposite of what the poem says. Maybe she is saying that other poets do not feel the way she does about how poems are created.

lagged (adj.): Figuratively, flagged means noticed. Literally, it is putting a flag in the ground to mark a place. Walker is saying that every beat of her heart is important, and she wants to make a note of it. She wants to remember every part of the love affair – the positive things (such as her heart beating faster with desire) as well as the negative things.

gradually (adv.): Gradually means slowly. Walker says that it took her a long time to know how to write a truthful poem. She had to experience joy as well as pain and loss, for herself.

stiff-neck (adj.): To have a stiff-neck means to be proud or arrogant. When we are hurt, sometimes we try to hide our feelings. We try to laugh off the rejection. Literally, we hold our heads high (with stiff necks) so others cannot tell how sad we feel.


1. SPEAKER: The speaker in the poem is unnamed, but we know that it is probably the poet, Alice Walker. She uses the first-person narrative voice (‘I’).

2. VOICE: The voice of the poem is a mixture of sadness and joy. The poet sounds detached (not passionate) and calm. The tone is mostly hopeful. The speaker is stepping back from her experience to try to make sense of it.

3. ADDRESSEE: The speaker is having a conversation with herself; an internal monologue. But it is also directed at us, the readers. Anyone who has had a failed relationship or has been rejected will relate to the poem.



When love relationships do not work out, we feel rejected and unhappy with ourselves. Often, we are confused: we cannot understand why someone does not love us anymore. We have to deal (struggle) with the feelings of heartbreak and rejection so we can move on to find peace again. Otherwise, we can get stuck in the internal struggle and not find peace.

‘Letting go / in order to hold on’ (lines 1–2):

These sound like two opposing ideas, but what Walker means is that we have to understand why things have happened to us. She knows that writing a poem helps us to let go of emotions that are building up inside of us. When we comprehend (understand) how our relationships work, we can cope better and can ‘hold on’ to the good things. It can feel difficult (like a struggle) to admit our true feelings. It might feel more difficult that just pretending everything is fine. However, in the long run, we must just be honest and deal with our hurt feelings in order to truly move on.


We can understand our lives better if we write about our experiences. This helps us to heal ourselves after horrible things have happened to us. This is called narrative (telling stories) therapy. Life is a mixture of joyful and bitter events. Poems can help balance out our emotions. Writing down our experiences helps us remember that we have happiness: ‘laughter’ (line 22). Writing can also help us remember the ‘tears’ (line 20). Remembering both positive and negative experiences help us to heal from a difficult event. Poetry comes from our own experiences that we want to write down. Writing a poem lets us share those emotions with other people who might relate to (be helped by) them.


‘There is a place the loss must go’ (line 7 and line 26). This tells us that Walker feels that a poem is a place where the feelings of loss can go, rather keeping the feelings inside of us. A poem can express the hurt we feel when a relationship ends. Writing the poem makes that feeling of loss less painful. ‘There is a place the gain must go’ (line 27). The poem helps the writer understand what she has gained through her painful experience. By the end of the poem, Walker knows that she has lost a partner – but she has gained knowledge. Now she knows that she can survive hurtful events. Writing can help her to heal herself, and prepare her to love someone else in the future. She has gained hope from her own writing. Writing helps Walker understand and process the complex feelings that she has. Walker understands that we feel a range of emotions, from joy to bitterness. She writes ‘They are the tears / that season the smile’ (lines 20–21) Having difficulties in our lives (‘tears’) help us appreciate our happy moments (‘the smile’) more deeply. Walker writes ‘the flagged beats of a running / Heart’ (line 17–18). Flagging means noticing or point out. Walker is saying that a poem documents or records how it feels to be in love (when the heart beats faster). A poem can also acknowledge the good parts of a past relationship –‘the upbeat flight of memories’ (line 16). ‘Upbeat’ means positive. The partner may be gone, but the poet has some happy memories of the love affair.



A metaphor directly compares two things. There are usually two meanings – one literal, physical meaning, and one figurative or deeper meaning.

A. ‘They are the tears / that season the smile’ (lines 20–21) tells us that poems are honest and truthful. Seasoning could be the salt or spice used in cooking. Tears are also literally salty, but here she means that they add truth and are more valuable and interesting than a false smile. Love is not simple. We always have mixed feelings (both sorrow and joy) about relationships. Walker does not want people to pretend that they feel fine, or to hide their feelings by putting on a brave face.

B. ‘crowds the throat’ (line 23) does not mean the speaker actually has people inside her throat. She means that her feelings are so strong that she feels as if she is choking. When we cry (with sadness or joy), our throats can feel as if they are closing because the membranes inside our throats swell.

C. ‘The love that spills out / of the too full cup’ (lines 9–10). This image compares love to a cup full of liquid. There is an English idiom (saying) which says ‘my cup runneth over’. This means that when we have so much joy, that it cannot fit into a cup. Here Walker is saying the opposite. She has too much love. The person she loves cannot accept her love because it is overpowering. The speaker has been rejected, so she feels heartbroken.


Repetition is when the same words are used over and over. a ‘How poems are made’ is the title of the poem. Walker repeats the phrase in three slightly different ways throughout the poem: • First, she ‘gradually’ (slowly) understands how poems are made. • Then she ‘comprehends’ and ‘understands’ how they are made. • Finally, she ‘knows’ how poems are made. She moves from confusion to certainty. By the end of the poem, she has worked out how to live with her heartbreak – through writing a poem. She understands that poems are made from a poet expressing their true feelings on paper. b ‘the leftover love’ and ‘there is a place the loss must go’. These two phrases are both repeated and help to emphasise the key emotional truth of the poem: that love is painful. The repetitions push the message home to us and emphasise just how much pain the speaker feels.


An oxymoron places two seemingly opposite ideas close together to tell a truth.

A. ‘Letting go / in order to hold on’ (lines 1–2) sounds like it is an impossible task. Walker does not mean she is physically holding onto another person. ‘Letting go’ means she is trying to be at peace with (not bothered by) her failed relationship. To ‘hold on’ here means to remember the good, positive experiences. She does not want her memories to worry about her and make her feel bad about herself.

B. ‘Stiff-necked laughter’ (line 22): Stiff-necked means proud and proud people do not like to laugh at themselves or feel stupid. But Walker means that people pretend that they are happy even when they are suffering. We do not want other people to know how hurt we are after a break-up, so we put on a brave face and say we are fine. We hold our heads high (are stiff-necked) and fake laughter and merriment. The poet wishes that people did not do this.

Model Questions

1 Refer to the title of the poem, ‘How Poems are Made’:
A. Use your own words to explain how poems are made.
Ans. Walker says that poems are a place for all the emotions left over after a love affair ends. These can be happy, positive ones (‘leftover love’; ‘the running heart’) as well as painful ones (loss).

B. Explain if Walker thinks other poets will agree with her about how to make poems?
Ans. No, she does not they will not all agree with her. She says it her view on making poems is a ‘discredited view’. This means that other people will not accept her opinion or think it is valuable.

2 Refer to ‘The love that spills out / of the too full cup’ (lines 9–10):

A. Identify the figure of speech in these lines.

Ans. metaphor.

B. Explain how this figure of speech is effective.
Ans. The poet compares her love to a cup full of liquid. She means that the love inside herself has become too much (‘too full cup’) and is being rejected and wasted (‘spills’) by her lover.

3. Refer to ‘The stiff-neck laughter’ (line 22):

A. Identify the literary device in ‘stiff-neck laughter’.
Ans. oxymoron

B. Explain how this literary device is effective.
Ans. ‘stiff-neck’ and ‘laughter’ are opposites. Laughter is usually associated with happiness and being relaxed, but ‘stiff-necked’ suggests that the person laughing is tense. The person is hiding their true feelings pretending, by laughing and pretending that nothing is wrong.

4. Refer to the poem as a whole. Identify and discuss the effect of the use of repetition in the poem.
Ans. Walker repeats the phrase ‘how poems are made’. At first, she is confused about what makes a poem feel real or trustworthy. Then she says then she understands and comprehends how poems are made: she is learning through experience that real feelings matter most in a poem. At last, she is certain and says she knows how poems are made – through accepting all our feelings and recording them in a poem. The repetition of ‘how poems are made’ shows her natural progression of understanding how poems are made.


Lizzy · June 24, 2021 at 8:00 pm

I find this site really helpful Since I use it when I study for a test
Thank you

Nongcebo nkwanyana · November 8, 2022 at 7:16 pm

I like this site

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *